Novel research has signified the exciting potential of employing psychedelics to treat depression, finding that psilocybin treatment can help alleviate the impacts of the mental health condition.
Performed by researchers at UC San Francisco and Imperial College London, the study revealed that psilocybin treatment promotes more significant connections between different brain regions of depressed people, freeing individuals from long periods of rumination and excessive self-focus.
The investigation signifies that there may be a general mechanism in which psychedelics therapeutically affect the brain to reduce depression and potentially a range of psychiatric conditions that are characterised by fixed patterns of thinking.
Implementing psilocybin treatment
In their study, the team examined fMRI brain scans from nearly 60 people who participated in two psilocybin treatment trials. The first trial’s participants had treatment-resistant depression and knew they were being administered psilocybin.
The second study’s participants were not as severely depressed and were not told if they were given psilocybin treatment or a placebo called escitalopram, which is an SSRI antidepressant. All of the participants also received the same type of psychotherapy.
Did the therapy relieve depression?
The scans were performed before and after treatment, revealing that the psilocybin treatment reduced connections in the areas of the brain that are closely associated with depression, including the default mode, salience, and executive networks. The therapy also increased connections in the brain regions that had not been integrated well.
Additionally, the participants were less emotionally avoidant, and their cognitive functioning improved. Improvements in their mental health correlated to changes in their brains, with these changes lasting until the study ended three weeks after the second psilocybin dose. No brain changes were observed in the patients who received escitalopram, suggesting that psilocybin treatment works differently than SSRIs.
Psilocybin, like other serotonergic psychedelics such as ayahuasca, influences the brain’s 5-HT2A receptors that become overactive in depression. A theory suggests that psychedelic drugs disrupt these connections, enabling them to reform in new ways in the days and weeks following the treatment.
Robin Carhart-Harris, PhD, who directs the Neuroscape Psychedelics Division at UCSF and is the senior author of the study, commented: “In previous studies, we had seen a similar effect in the brain when people were scanned whilst on a psychedelic, but here we’re seeing it weeks after treatment for depression, which suggests a carry-over of the acute drug action.
“We don’t yet know how long the changes in brain activity seen with psilocybin therapy last, and we need to do more research to understand this. We do know that some people relapse, and it may be that after a while, their brains revert to the rigid patterns of activity we see in depression.”
The researchers explained that although the study’s results are promising, people with depression should not attempt to self-medicate with psilocybin. The study was conducted under controlled, clinical conditions, using a regulated dose formulated in a laboratory and involved extensive psychological support at all stages. Nevertheless, the research illuminated that there is a mechanism that may explain why psilocybin alleviates depression and other psychiatric conditions.
David Nutt, DM, head of the Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research, concluded: “For the first time, we find that psilocybin treatment works differently from conventional antidepressants – making the brain more flexible and fluid, and less entrenched in the negative thinking patterns associated with depression. This supports our initial predictions and confirms psilocybin could be a real alternative approach to depression treatments.”